Reference Backtalk: A Painful Topic Presents Tough Choices

Genocide remains a constant topic in the news in the 21st century. Many of the worst instances of genocidal violence in history have occurred in the last 40 years, in places such as Bosnia, Cambodia, East Timor, Guatemala, Rwanda, and the Sudan (Darfur). Several of these countries are still seeking justice against the alleged perpetrators through legal action in national or international courts.

The necessity of establishing genocide as a dedicated topic of study is clear. Today’s students will be tomorrow’s citizens and leaders, and they must be equipped to understand the world as it is—and further, to think clearly about the world as it might be. They need to consider the quandaries regarding genocide that even scholars struggle with: What are the roots of ethnic and religious conflict? Who bears responsibility for these tragic events? What intervention efforts were made to stop them, and why didn’t those efforts succeed? What can the international community do to prevent future genocides?

Tackling controversies

Despite general agreement that the subject of genocide should be covered in high school and college classrooms in the United States, aside from coverage of the Holocaust, the larger topic of genocide is often omitted from textbooks, leaving educators with little support in tackling this highly controversial subject.

Further, the matter of choosing which “genocides” to study can be sensitive, particularly in areas with great ethnic diversity. For example, the Toronto School District Board faced criticism at both an inclusion and exclusion: Turkish groups didn’t like the “genocide” term applied to the mass killings of Armenian citizens in 1915, and an organization of Ukrainian-Canadians lobbied for inclusion of the 1932 Ukrainian Starvation.

In creating this resource, ABC-CLIO’s board, which is made up of scholars and educators, adhered to the widely accepted United Nations definition of genocide. Accordingly, the board chose ten events to start: the Armenian, Bosnian, Cambodian, Darfur, East Timor, Guatemalan, Herero, Kurdish, and Rwandan genocides; and the Holocaust.

Modern Genocide board member and scholar Steven Leonard Jacobs notes, “What sets this project apart from others is not only the quality of the writing but the willingness to address areas of controversy surrounding these various genocides, especially the question of denial. Truly, this is not the end of this journey but the beginning.” Jacobs goes on to explain that, “Additional tragic cases of genocides will be added to this database.”

One of the important features in this resource is coverage of the eight stages of genocide developed by Gregory H. Stanton, the president of Genocide Watch. The eight stages focus on the prevention of genocide through the recognition of warning signs. Although the subject matter is somber, it’s important to also recognize that the history of modern genocide is not without gripping stories of courage and heroism by brave individuals who put their lives on the line to save others from genocidal violence. Modern Genocide offers many of these “upstander” stories—some well known, such as the work of the friends and neighbors who hid Anne Frank’s family, and Oskar Schindler’s actions to save hundreds of Jews. The resource also spotlights upstanders whose heroic deeds are largely unrecognized: for example, Vladka Meed, a Polish Jew who disguised herself as a gentile woman and acted as a clandestine courier outside the Warsaw Ghetto; and Père Marie-Benoît, a French Catholic priest who forged documents that enabled hundreds of Jews to escape the Holocaust.

In recognition of Holocaust Awareness Month, ABC-CLIO is providing unlimited access to this important resource to libraries across the country for the month of April 2013: see for details.

Pat Carlin is Managing Editor, Military History at ABC-CLIO